As a professional with a congenital hearing disability who has studied abroad and traveled to over ten countries, Irene Scott understands firsthand the challenges and rewards of sending students with disabilities abroad. It also places her in a unique position at the Study Abroad Programs Office at Texas A&M University: that of a confidante or role model to students with disabilities who seek overseas experiences of their own.
“I’ve been able to personalize my advice for students who are hard of hearing about accommodations or other considerations when traveling. Even if our disabilities are different, knowing that someone else has walked that road [of going abroad] helps put students at ease. It shows them that it’s possible.”
Besides hearing disabilities, Irene and her colleagues have worked with students with chronic medical conditions, learning disabilities, visual disabilities, and mobility disabilities, including wheelchair users. They’ve presented their inclusive outreach and advising strategies, like the ones below, at several higher education conferences to show other institutions that disability inclusion is something that all campuses can – and should – be incorporating into their internationalization efforts.
Everyone plays an integral role in addressing the students’ needs prior to departure, while abroad, and upon return.
Although her personal experience of having studied abroad with a disability has enhanced her role as an advisor, Irene says education abroad advisors need not have a disability to set a positive example. Instead, “making international experiences accessible for all students will involve ingenuity and openness from you. It is well worth the effort.”
Irene’s Recommendations for Serving Students with Disabilities
Do your homework. Research your program’s policies and goals for diversity and inclusion, and think about how they tie into your institution’s goals and mission. Familiarize yourself with disability-related resources that are available on campus, in the community, and overseas. Some institutions and third-party program providers have more resources than others – if you don’t know, ask.
Show what’s possible. Often, students with disabilities don’t seek out international opportunities because they assume that it’s an uphill battle. Help students with disabilities understand that traveling internationally is a real option for them, that their participation is valued, and that support is available throughout the planning process. Create advising resources that explain how to disclose a disability and request program accommodations (through the website, online orientation, program handbook, etc.) For examples, visit the Texas A&M Study Abroad Programs Office webpage on requesting disability accommodations and program adjustments (under Related Links).
Be a team player. Everyone plays an integral role in addressing the students’ needs prior to departure, while abroad, and upon return. This includes the student, the Study Abroad office, Disability Services office, administrators from the host institution, and the program coordinator or faculty leader. Start coordinating among these various players early – Irene recommends at least 3-6 months prior to departure.
Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Facilitate a frank conversation with the student prior to departure and prepare them for the unexpected while abroad (e.g. an interpreter becomes ill, a particular field trip is inaccessible, or equipment is lost). Explain how the host country’s disability laws and cultural expectations might impact the student’s experience.